Christopher Nolan is up to his old tricks again. The devious filmmaker behind Memento has come up with another teasingly clever and original suspense movie about obsession and identity. The Prestige was probably the smartest movie to top the US box office charts in 2006.
Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play two Edwardian era magicians - Borden and Angier - who begin the movie as friends and collaborators, until a Houdini-like escapology trick goes wrong, and Angier's wife is drowned on stage.
From then on their rivalry knows no bounds. Angier sabotages Borden's bullet-catching trick, which leaves him slight of hand in ways he never expected. Borden retaliates by exposing Angier's show-piece illusion on stage, and raises the stakes by pulling off a stunt so mystifying Angier becomes obsessed with its secrets. Even after he successfully duplicates it and wins away Borden's audience, Angier isn't satisfied: his own ingenious piece of stagecraft is too banal to explain the magic he sees Borden perform on a nightly basis.
Into the middle of this feud slips Olivia (Scarlett Johansson). Borden's stage assistant and lover, she shows up at Angier's theatre and declares that she's ready to switch allegiance. Of course he cannot trust her, even when she agrees Borden has sent her. But perhaps there is a way she can prove her good faith. If she will steal Borden's notebook.
Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige offers a dazzling display of showmanship that compels on many levels. Like Nolan's other films - Following, Memento, Insomnia and Batman Begins - it is constructed as a post-modern puzzle, framing stories within stories, flashbacks within flashbacks, and presenting us with at least two unreliable narrators - one of whom is the victim in the murder trial that opens the film.
Such complexity would stymie many directors, but Nolan is a past master at this kind of thing, and the central feud is strong enough to keep the film moving forward even as the chronology zigzags this way and that. The script is by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, which may or may not explain why there is an undercurrent of sibling rivalry between the two sharply contrasted men: Angier the slumming toff, obsessively jealous of working class Borden's total dedication to his art.
Look out for a doubling motif that runs through the film: we routinely see the same tricks performed at least twice, once by the wily Borden (aka The Professor) and then again with Angier's more cultivated pizzazz. To pull off his most famous trick, The New Transported Man, Angier (aka The Great Danton) requires his own double. Fortunately an out of work thespian is on hand for the job. Unfortunately he's a drunk with an ego, so the act is always teetering on the edge of disaster.
There are other sets of pairs too: David Bowie has a pivotal cameo as the rogue genius, Nikolai Tesla, and his rivalry with the inventor (and moving picture pioneer) Thomas Edison mirrors the magicians' relationship.
In the character of Tesla the film implies that 'magic' is simply science we haven't figured out yet. Angier journeys from London to the American West to track him down, arriving eventually in Colorado, where an electric light at the station has all the wonderment of the forest lamp-post that signals arrival in Narnia.
Michael Caine turns in his usual expert performance as Cutter, the 'ingeneur' whose job it is to make the Great Danton's wildest dreams a reality. A natural extrovert, Hugh Jackman has the bearing and the presence to suggest how Angier would become the toast of the town, and why that would never satisfy his thirst to better Bowden. But it's Christian Bale who finds the emotional depth in a decidedly tricky proposition.
Be warned, there is a last reel revelation which will infuriate some people, and which certainly leaves several questions dangling. But as in Memento, Nolan seems on top of where to place the trap doors in his narrative: it's the sort of movie you want to see again just to explore every possible avenue.